'Early in life I worked out that being yourself is the easiest thing'

Ian Chappell talks about making the transition from the field to the commentary box, where he teamed up with Benaud, Lawry and Greig

Interview by Gaurav Kalra  |  

Play 22:46

Today we thought we'd talk about your life as a broadcaster. When did the first sort of seed get planted in your head that this could be a life beyond the game?
Well, I don't know. My mother always says that I wanted to be a bus driver when I was a kid, but all the time that I played in the backyard when I was on my own - and that was for a few years before Greg came along, I would, you know, I'd be throwing the ball against the wall, hitting it and the whole time I'd commentate. Also, my grandfather, Vic Richardson - we have got a lot in common, we have a similar sort of build, I think, in a lot of ways similar sort of personalities. And Vic, after he stopped playing, he wrote on both cricket and football in Adelaide and broadcast on radio - you know, he was basically before television. So I don't know whether there was something in the genes there. I've always said that I'm more Richardson than Chappell.

And then my first as captain - and it's very good training for being a broadcaster, because you are obviously doing a lot of interviews, so you get used to that, but then it's a little bit different when it's not an interview and you're having to come up with the thoughts. But doing a lot of interviews as captain was very good training for a life in broadcasting. And being in Adelaide, a fairly small city, and being captain of Australia, you know, it was a big thing for South Australia to have the captain of Australia.

So I was doing a bit of television work there, but again it was mainly being interviewed, and then I also did a radio programme with 5AD, who, again, my grandfather had worked for earlier. So that's sort of how I got into writing and broadcasting. But it was no grand plan, it just sort of evolved.

The Packer years - and I guess you've been asked this a lot - but did the mindset change as cricketers and also as broadcasters: that you were not just part of a game now but a larger entertainment product?
I think it became obvious fairly quickly, probably while I was still playing World Series Cricket, and then I had one more season, you know, [after] the compromise. Before, when the ABC were covering cricket, it could have been two little ants out there. It was shot as though it was on a Polaroid and it was shot from one end the whole time. So you didn't really know the people as characters, but under Kerry and Channel Nine, David Hill and Brian Morelli did a lot of good things with the coverage.

"A lot of people said to me, 'Mate, you're copying Richie Benaud, you are becoming another Richie Benaud.' And I said, 'Mate, I'm never gonna be another Richie Benaud.'"

You sort of got in close and you saw the faces of the players, and you saw the tension. If the match was close or someone was getting close to a century, they would always get in right tight on the guy's face or on the bowler's face, and they were switching between the bowler and the batsman. And suddenly the players were being used to promote the game, you know. Young David Hookes, I'm sure, attracted a lot of the younger people. Hookesy had long blond hair. I think he attracted a lot of young female attention. So it became fairly obvious, fairly quickly, that suddenly the players became characters and better known amongst the public.

You have a couple of ways of getting people to keep watching the television. You can say, "This is really going to be interesting." Well, if I'm sitting at home watching a sporting event and some guy, some commentator, says this is going to be really interesting, I'd probably yell at the television and say, "Listen, mate, I will decide whether it's interesting or not. You just tell me about it." But let's say you've got Sachin Tendulkar batting and you've got Glenn McGrath bowling, and you as a commentator say, "Look, I think what Glenn McGrath is trying to do here to get rid of Sachin Tendulkar is, he is gonna bowl three or four of his top deliveries and then he is going to try and give him a quicker bouncer and that's why he has moved the fine leg a little bit wider."

By doing that, you know, the guy at home is saying, "Ah, this is interesting. I wonder if this is gonna happen." To me that's a much more subtle way of trying to make the game interesting.

Let's go back a little bit. Now here you are finishing your career and it sort of comes together at the same time as television in Australia starts to rise. Was it a smooth transition for you, player to commentator?
I got really lucky actually. We finished a Shield game, last game of the season. That night at midnight I got in my car and I drove to Sydney. It was nothing to do with broadcasting, I was chasing after an attractive young blonde, and fortunately that attractive young blonde's been my wife now for 33, 34 years.

I was going out there to live with Barbara and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Sydney was the right place. Obviously I had a bit of an inside running, having played for Kerry Packer. I had done a bit of broadcasting with the BBC, and I had a bit of experience there.

Chappell in his study at home in Sydney

Chappell in his study at home in Sydney © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Headingley - they used to do the interviews, like in the tea break. They would do them on the players' balcony, basically outside the dressing rooms. And I've done this interview, and Ashley Mallett wasn't on the tour, I can't remember exactly why. I think he just hadn't been selected, which to me was ridiculous. Kerry O'Keeffe was in the team, and I obviously must have in that interview said something about Mallett. Anyhow, [O'Keeffe] has come, and as I'm finishing the interview and about to leave, he is kind of, "Oh, Mallett this and Mallett that, you know, and bloody Mallett…" And I said, "Kerry, two things," I said. "If you don't like what I'm saying, there is a switch there with a 'V' - it starts with a V. You can just turn it like that and you don't hear anything." And I said, "If that's not good enough for you, there is another one with 'O' double 'F' on it. You just go, bang, and you stop, you won't hear anything."

So by the time I started full-time as a cricketer-commentator with Channel Nine, I had a bit of experience. But there is always - I mean, people see a television studio and they think, oh, it's very glamorous, and so on. When they actually come in the commentary box, they say, "Well, Christ, it's a mess, isn't it?" Because there's walls everywhere, and just - I mean, what you see on television looks terrific, but down below is a mess.

But I will never forget - and this is one of the reasons why Richie [Benaud] was so good - I think this was like my first year and we had this Wide World of Sports logo behind Richie. He's in his light-coloured jacket doing the tea-break stuff, and immaculate as always, and suddenly, boom, the set has fallen forward and hits Richie back of the head.

On a live shot?
Oh, yeah, yeah. He is right in the middle of the sentence, but typical Benaud, doesn't even miss a word there. You know, I mean, if it had been me, heaven knows what might have come out. But you know, Richie just kept going, didn't make a mistake with his sentence, and he just sort of pushed back a little bit with his shoulders and pushed the thing back a little bit. The same time as that happens, the bloody alarm on his watch goes off, you see. So once again, without missing a beat he just reaches down, turns the alarm off. The people at home wouldn't have known that anything had gone wrong, but things always go wrong in television. And that's why Richie was such a good presenter, because the people at home never knew what was going wrong with Richie, because he never missed a beat.

"I've seen Bill Lawry as a player not out at 6 o'clock at stumps, he's showered and gone by ten past six. I mean, I'm two hours later, I'd still be sitting there in my shirt and probably a towel around"

So now you've got the girl, you've got the job in Sydney, everything's looking good. This iconic team starts to come together that still gets talked about - Chappell, Lawry, Benaud, Tony Greig. Was that just an accident that the four of you came together and became this iconic team, or was there thought applied to a certain kind of commentator being built at Channel Nine?
Well, I've never actually asked David Hill about it, but Hilly was a very, very smart television person and I would imagine he put a bit of thought into it. He always talked about having a variety in commentary and in commentators, and I think that was one of the reasons why that group worked together, because we were all very different. And he always thought different voices were important. You know, Bill [Lawry] was always getting excited. I think Tony and Bill - well, I don't think, I know - that they sort of got together and thought and said, "Right, if we have a bit of an argument/disagreement every now and again, that won't hurt."

I think that Tony also, because he was seen as an outsider by Australians, having been an English player and English captain, and having been booed at probably most of the Australian grounds, I think he thought, right, that's something I can make work for me, so I will take whatever team's touring Australia, I will sort of take their side and that will just add to the - you know, it will create some disagreements, sort of thing. It will give the Australian public a reason to dislike me, or whatever.

Richie was always just his own man. I've always just tried to - fairly early in my life I worked out that being yourself is the easiest thing. Two things. My father, when I was young - I obviously did something wrong, and he hauled me in and he said, "Son, I'm not gonna belt you because you've done something wrong, but if you lie to me to try and get out of trouble, then I will belt you for lying to me." And I thank Martin every day of my life for simplifying my life, because I realised pretty quickly how telling the truth, it simplifies life. I mean, if I tell you a lie, then I've got to remember which lie I told you. You know, it just complicates life. So just being yourself…

Interviewing Man of the Match Shane Warne after the 1999 World Cup semi-final

Interviewing Man of the Match Shane Warne after the 1999 World Cup semi-final © Getty Images

I watched Richie, I learnt a lot of things from Richie, but to me it's like captaincy. I played under three captains, two Australian - [Bob] Simpson and then Lawry, and one South Australian, Les Favell. When I took over the job as Australian captain, I sat down and I wrote down all the things that I liked about their captaincy, and on this side of the paper, I wrote down all the things that I didn't like. So I then tried to obviously do the things that I liked. I tried not to do the things that I disliked, because I figured that if I disliked them, probably most players would dislike them. And then I said to myself, "And now you just put your own stamp on that, on the game."

I watched a few things other people did, but mainly Richie. And a lot of people for some reason, I don't know why, they - and even like Dennis Lillee - said to me, "Mate, you're copying Richie Benaud, you are becoming another Richie Benaud." And I said, "Mate, I'm never gonna be another Richie Benaud."

There is a very funny story actually. This is '76-'77, when I'm working for the Ten Network, and one night I'm in the bar with Richie, having a beer, and Rich says, "You know, Ian, there is a better way, you know." And I thought, "Ah, he is gonna tell me some things about broadcasting." And I said, "What do you mean, Rich?" And he said, "You don't have to tell every pest to piss off, you see." And I said "But Rich, you know, it gives me a bit of satisfaction every now and again to tell some pests to - where to go, you know." And that was it. That's one of the rare pieces of advice that he has offered. You know, if I ask him questions, he would always give me thoughts.

Anyhow, next day we're at the cricket ground and I must have been feeling magnanimous or something, but I've agreed to this interview, this invitation to go to lunch with the administrators. I don't know why I've agreed to that, but anyhow at the Adelaide Oval it was, and so I've gone down to go to lunch with these administrators. I walk through the door and the first guy I run into is a guy who was a schoolteacher at the college I went to, you see. I didn't like the guy very much and I don't think he liked me very much, and he was the coach of the 1st XI when I played my first season. Fortunately, he moved on and then the guy I had after that was terrific. But Bill Leak - I'd had some trouble, which had been reported as being a strike by the South Australian players the season before. And he had written me this scathing letter, saying, "Here I am, I'm a schoolteacher, I'm trying to teach young kids how to behave properly and you are carrying on like this. You are a disgrace. Your behaviour is terrible. Why don't you retire?" See, so I walk in and, boom, first guy I see is Bill Leak. So - I don't know, I've got no idea why I did this, but I walked over, patted him on the back and said, "Bill, haven't seen you for ages." I said, "Thank you very much for that lovely letter you sent me." And off I go.

"You as a commentator say, 'I think Glenn McGrath is gonna bowl three or four of his top deliveries and then try and give Tendulkar a quicker bouncer." The guy at home is saying, "Ah, I wonder if this is gonna happen."

I'm sitting down and I'm thinking, Richie is right, there is a better way. You know, that felt good 'cause now he's got to explain to all these people at his table. Anyhow, I go back to the commentary box, and I haven't - well, Richie and I are not working together, so I don't get an opportunity to tell him. He goes off for a drink with a mate of his at the cricket ground, so it's later before I run into him at the bar at the hotel. And he comes in and I can't wait to tell him. I said, "Rich, you are right, there is a better way." And he says, "How then do you explain what happened to me at the ground after play?" I said, "Why, what happened, Rich?" He said, "Well, I've gone in the bar to have a drink with my mate, and just had the first sip of white wine and this bloke comes up to me and he taps me on the arm and says, 'Richie Benaud! You don't remember me, do you?' And I had another sip of my wine and I said, 'Just give me a second, it will come to me, it will come to me.' Had another sip and the guy is going to [say something]. 'No, no, no, no, no, just give it a second, it will come to me.' Had another sip and he can't wait to tell me who he is, you see. 'No, no, give me a chance.' He said, 'I'm Ron Cooper.' And Richie said, "Well, why don't you eff-off then?"

Did you form friendships with all of them, off your working hours? Obviously Richie Benaud sounds like a mentor and someone you greatly admired, but with Tony Greig and Bill Lawry, who were contemporaries - you must have played cricket a lot with them. Were friendships away from the box important?
Yeah, I mean I played under Bill. I was vice-captain to Bill when he was captain. Now Bill and I are, you know, North Pole-South Pole. I mean, Bill was a non-drinker. He hates, sort of, going out late at night. I mean, I've seen Bill Lawry as a player not out at 6 o'clock at stumps, he's showered and gone by ten past six. I mean, I'm two hours later, I'd still be sitting there in my shirt and probably a towel around. I'd gotten rid of my creams, but I needed to relax and come down after a game, particularly when I was captain, but pretty well always.

But we always got on well together. Bill and I are, I guess, similar in that you know where you stand. I always knew where I stood with Bill, and I think he always knew where he stood with me. That didn't mean that we agreed all the time, but we'd have our disagreement and then you just move on. It didn't fester with Bill.

With Benaud (left) and Lawry (right) at an SCG Test

With Benaud (left) and Lawry (right) at an SCG Test © Getty Images

So we've always got on well together and I roomed with him once - actually in India, in Pune. We were at the Turf Club hotel in Pune in 1969 and they didn't have enough rooms for the captain and the vice-captain to have a single room each, and I roomed with Bill. It was one of the funniest nights I have ever had. He was telling me all these stories about his first tour to England, in 1961. I was wetting myself laughing. He is a very funny man, Bill.

And so, you know, I always enjoyed his company. I wouldn't say we are best friends, but a couple of times - like, they named a stand, I think it was, after him at Northcote Cricket Ground, and I was honoured to go and, you know, make the speech for the opening for Bill. I introduced him when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I got a card from Joy, his wife, thanking me very much for what I had said about Bill. So, you know, we've always had that relationship.

Tony and I - I admired Tony when he was playing for England. I respected him as a cricketer who got the absolute best out of his ability, but I must say I lost a bit of respect for him during World Series Cricket for a number of reasons. And so for a little while that animosity, certainly from my side, still came through when we were commentating together. And I think after a little while, I thought to myself, "Ian, you know, what's this all about? You know, you are obviously gonna be working together, could be for quite a long time. This is pretty pointless." So I would never say that I was a friend of Tony Greig's, but we always got on quite well. And you know, he was damn good company. I remember one of the last evenings I had with him. We were in Colombo. Must have been during the - I can't remember now but I think it was probably the World Cup. It was either the World Cup or the T20 world event, one of the two. And we were staying at the hotel in Colombo and it was some sort of holiday and we couldn't get any alcohol.

So, you know, as an Australian - whatever he is, English, South African, whatever - we are pretty inventive when it comes to finding alcohol. I think we had some of our own but they told us that we had to sort of sit in a dark corner around the pool, where we wouldn't be seen, and drink our alcohol there. Tony was, by that stage he was having a cigar. And I always liked cigars, I preferred cigars. I didn't have them very often - probably had one every three years. And I'm sitting there with Greigy and we are having a glass of red and he said, "Would you like a cigar?" And I thought, yeah, I do. We had a cigar. And not long after that we were back home and I got the message that Tony had cancer and the news wasn't very good. So I rang him up and I said, "Jesus, mate, I hope that wasn't a bad batch of cigars you had in Colombo, was it?" And, I think, I guess, that's the Australian way, you know, when things are bad you - sort of, the black humour comes out, and yeah, he laughed about it.

"When the ABC were covering cricket, it was shot as though it was on a Polaroid. But under Kerry and Channel Nine, you sort of got in close and you saw the faces of the players, and you saw the tension"

And then the other thing was, he always drove the car - to commentary. Bill would be in the navigator seat and myself and whoever in the back. Richie was always in the back. But Greigy always drove; he loved driving.

And he had a use for the key of the car as well.
That's right, for the pitch, yeah.

So, this year when he is ill and he is not commentating with us - first Test match, as always in Brisbane, 8 o'clock, you know, leave to go to the ground. And Bill and I are standing there waiting for the car to come around and I forget who was going to drive on that occasion. And I suddenly thought, "Greigy." So I ring Tony's mobile. As soon as he picks up, I said, "Greigy, where are you? The car is here." And he was a bit confused. "What the hell are you talking about?" I said, "It's Chappelli here, we're here and we're waiting for you at the car." And then he laughed and he said, "Oh, yeah mate, I'm - you know, I'm sorry, I'm not gonna be with you, but hopefully soon I will be with you." Sadly, he never was.

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Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75